11 June 2008

Another long day in the library. I've been on campus since 7:30 this morning and have been hard at work ever since, with a quick lunch break around 2:30. And I'll stick to it for at least another 45 minutes. Nothing like a long day on a hard chair (curse the library reading room which poses the choice between a chair with a cushioned seat but which screws my back up or a chair with no cushioning but which supports my back).

I haven't done much work towards my exams today. What I have done is explore and begin using a couple of new time management devices. And I'm really excited about them. One of my biggest challenges has always been keeping myself on task. I tend to think about my projects as wholes, rather than as processes with many discrete steps that can be taken individually. The result of that kind of thinking is that I'm daunted by the sheer size of my projects and I have a really hard time moving. So I'm excited about new tools that will help with time management and efficiency.
  • A few months ago, J(wh) suggested I read David Allen's Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. I started it and actually made it through about 2/3 of the book. But it was sacrificed to my proclivity to thinking whole. It seemed like the only way to implement the book's plan was to do everything right away and I couldn't see my way to doing that. So when J(wh) shared the Thinking Rock software based on Allen's book, I took a look. Today I downloaded it and have been entering projects and tasks. And I'm really impressed. It let's you not only create a list of tasks, it prompts you to define where a task must be accomplished, link tasks in projects, brainstorm what needs to be done, etc. I think it will be really useful.
  • When I commented to J(wh) (yes, he is my source of most tech tips) that I wished Google calendar had a task list, he told me about Remember the Milk, an online task manager that offers an interface with Google calendar. I'd prefer to simply use Thinking Rock, as it has greater capacity for organizing projects and tasks, but it's not web-based (not yet, anyway). And I want to be able to access my daily task lists online in case I don't have my laptop with me. So I'll spend a few minutes transferring tasks to my Google calendar when I do a daily review each morning.
  • And finally a research tool: Zotero. I found this a few weeks ago (actually even longer ago than that, but it resurfaced a few weeks ago when I actually checked it out). And I have to say that this is an amazing research tool. Incredibly easy to use. Wonderful capacity as a tool. If you're looking for a way to manage your research, I think this is about the best option I've seen.
So now that I've taken steps to make myself more efficient, hopefully I'll make better strides in terms of productivity.

21 May 2008


So I haven't posted in a while, and the excuse of having been out of town only covers for part of it. So here's an update of what I've accomplished in the last few weeks:
  • Appointments with two professors, one of whom I'm quite hopeful about working with.
  • Finished reading Middlemarch, which really should merit a party. It was wonderful, by the way.
  • Read Gaskell's Cranford and discussed it with my women's reading groups.
  • Roughed out my C list, which was a bit of a beast.
  • Emailed all four professors I hope to work with to make appointments to discuss C list (sent them copies of all three lists).
  • Made an appointment to meet with one of my professors this Friday, May 23.
  • Set up RefWorks folders to track my research.
  • Kept decent hours (although there are never enough hours to do all the work).
I feel pretty good about those accomplishments. My new goal: read more regularly.

07 May 2008


So. I suppose this blog won’t help me much if I don’t use it. Funny how that works.

Yesterday was not good. Well, at least not in the moment. On Monday I finally sent a couple of those emails I was supposed to send a week ago. But I’m not going to dwell on when I was supposed to send them, as that usually gets me down on myself. So I sent them on Monday. And one of the professors actually responded the same day, offering to meet with me on Tuesday morning. For a variety of reasons I was hesitant to talk to him—I’ve never had a class from him; he’s always struck me as a bit distant; one of my other committee members seemed to have reservations about him; and of course all of my usual self-doubt which leaves me feeling incompetent. So I procrastinated all morning, lazing around in bed surfing the web rather than reviewing my lists and prepping for the meeting.

By the time I left home, I was feeling panicky. Anxious over the quality of the project and how it would be received by someone who didn’t know me and already like me. I was actually in tears before I left, thinking the worst of myself and my abilities, sure that what I can do just isn’t good enough. I knew I couldn’t walk into a professor’s office in tears. Fortunately I also know that J(wh) can usually talk me through my anxiety. So I called him and we talked as I drove. He made me articulate what I hoped to achieve with this meeting. I talked through the theoretical points of my project and avenues I’m trying to explore to enhance those theoretical interests. And I took the time to get control of my breathing. By the time I got to the professor’s office I was much calmer.

Which is a very good thing. Because after I summed up my project and explained what I needed help with, the professor’s first order of business was to understand my background in the program. And when he heard I was approaching the end of my fourth year enrolled, his immediate response was to tell me I would run out of teaching support if I didn’t pass my exams by the end of my 12th quarter. Which surprised me. And threw me into a new panic because funding is one of my perpetual sources of anxiety and stress. If J(wh) hadn’t helped me talk through my previous anxiety, I think I would have broken down into tears on the spot. Fortunately I kept it together, though not well enough to realize I’ve only had ten quarters of teaching support so I’m actually still on track for the schedule I’d set for myself (completing exams before the end of Winter 2009).

The meeting ended up being primarily useful in terms of very practical advice about timing and committee formation and meetings, etc. And a promise to review my lists and make suggestions. After I calmed myself down a bit, I realized that I still had enough time to get my exams done while funded. And I called J(wh) and he talked me through my second bout of anxiety for the morning. All of which made me realize how very important it is that instead of fearing what I don’t know and so avoiding knowing it, I need to just find out what the reality is. Even if the reality is bad, at least I’ll know it rather than fearing the unknown. And I can only solve known problems. I know that sounds simple—like something I should just understand. But sometimes the simple things are the hardest to deal with.

27 April 2008


Pages to read: 100. Eliot's Middlemarch. Rosamond and Lydgate are engaged, blithely ignoring the financial realities they'll face. Fred has just discovered he'll inherit nothing, while the stranger Joshua Riggs inherits all. And Will Ladislaw has returned to Middlemarch, much to Dorothea and Mr. Causubon's (who I always think of as Mr. Causubon, not Edward) surprise.

To accomplish: Email potential committee members to make appointments. Rough out C list.

26 April 2008

Why this blog?

A little over a year ago, I decided not to return to grad school. Not for the first time. I'd taken a quarter off (also not for the first time) for various reasons, one of which was that I had not finished an incomplete in time to receive funding for the fall quarter. But not finishing that paper was simply a symptom of much larger problems--problems to do with deeply rooted insecurities and depression. So I'd taken the quarter off and as my deadline loomed to finish the work and as I felt more and more stressed in the face of not having completed it, I decided that I'd had it with the strain of earning a PhD. I notified my department and started taking steps to pursue other options.

I knew I still wanted to teach, so I looked at available jobs in local community colleges. And I started filling out an application for a private school head-hunting firm. Applying for jobs requires letters of recommendation, so I contacted my supervisor for teaching and my academic adviser to ask for letters. And I called an old professor, J, from my years as an undergrad. He was the closest thing to a mentor I'd had. And we stayed good friends after I graduated and went on my way. He wasn't in when I called, so I left a message: I'm dropping out. I'm looking for a job. Would you write me a letter?

A couple of days later, J called me back. I wasn't looking forward to this call. I knew it would be difficult. He's always encouraged me to pursue my PhD and to teach at a university. And I was right--the conversation was not an easy one. But it was an incredibly rewarding one. In that hour spent talking while I sat in the shade on a friend's driveway, J recounted his own grad school experience to me. The hours spent shooting trashcan hoops instead of working. The guilt of knowing that his wife was supporting him while he made no progress. The self-doubt that constantly nagged at him. The power games his dissertation chair played with him. All in an effort to make me understand that I'm not alone in my discouragement and frustrations with grad school.

At some point in that conversation, J passed on advice someone had given him. "It's like being lost in the wilderness. Whatever you do--no matter how unsure you are about which way to go--you have to keep moving. Because if you sit down, you'll never get out of the wilderness. You just have to keep moving." That advice resonated with me. I knew I simply had to do what needed to be done--that nothing else could better prevent the negative, self-destructive thought cycles I caught myself in. And in the year since J shared that advice, I've heard it from several others--from Seymour, who started this program with me nearly 5 years ago; from 'The Dean' (JP) and 'The Doctor' (RAF), who Seymour introduced me to and who have been an amazing source of support; even from new acquaintances I don't know all that well. I intend this blog to help in my effort to keep moving.

And how will it do that? I anticipate it helping me keep moving in two key ways:

Obligation: If I know that others know what I'm supposed to be doing and how well I'm fulfilling those obligations, I'm much more likely to act. In other words, I don't always do so well when only accountable to myself. By making my progress public and easily accessible to those who may care, I'm applying a bit of pressure. I've particularly got The Dean and The Doctor in mind, as they have effective pointy figurative boots with which to give me a kick. But if any of the rest of you want to join in the prod-Amy-to-finish exercise, please feel free.

Recognition: One of the destructive thought cycles I find myself in is thinking I've accomplished nothing. This often happens because I think on a large scale about my projects, rather than thinking in terms of the small daily steps that must be taken. I find that when I have some means of recording what I actually accomplish each day--no matter how small it is--I'm able to break that cycle and continue moving. So this blog will not only communicate to others what I'm doing, it will also force me to recognize my own accomplishment. Something I need any help I can get with, as I'm my own worst critic (who isn't, really?).

I'm not entirely sure exactly how this will end up working. It's just an idea that occurred to me this afternoon as I was working in my office (yes--I spent most of my Saturday working in my 8x10 office; yay me!). I have a few ideas about what I can do here that will help others help me and that will help me recognize what I need to do and what I have done. A few things you'll see here:
  • Goals for daily reading. I'm prepping for my qualifying exams, which translates to a lot of reading. I'm going to try to set a goal each day and report on whether I met it.
  • A weekly (maybe daily?) task list of things I'd like to accomplish. This may show up on the side bar. Or it may show up in an entry. I haven't decided yet.
  • Reading notes. I really need to start keeping track of what I'm reading for my lists in a more organized fashion. I doubt these will be of interest to many people other than me, but hey--if you really want to know what I think about surveillance in Villette or preconception in Middlemarch, feel free to peruse.
  • Reviews of useful works of criticism.
  • Lists of useful web resources.
If you have suggestions for how I can make this blog a useful tool, I'd love to hear them. And if you have suggestions for useful research management devices, I'd love to hear those, too.

Wish me well as I renew my commitment to this venture. It's time for me to start moving out of the wilderness.

Research interests, or What gets me excited.

I'm not going to try to spell them out in great detail here--just give you a sense of where I think I'm heading. I've changed my primary field several times over the years (those of you who know about my undergrad career and its six or seven changes of major won't be surprised). But necessity has demanded a decision. Which led me to review what kinds of papers I'd written in my several years in grad school. What I finally determined was that although I love 20th century fiction, I find myself returning over and over to 19th century fiction. That I write regularly about issues having to do with gender formation and definition. And that I more often than not write about community in some form. So my first definition of what I wanted to study for my quals, and ultimately my dissertation, was: Victorian literature (I've usually tended towards British, more than American); women's lit/women's studies (which I envisioned including both British and American women from a long 19th century); and theories of community (to which I quickly added theories of the novel).

As I discussed these topics with faculty members and began doing my reading, I realized that I was seriously limiting myself on my secondary list (women's lit/women's studies) by not allowing myself to consider how male gender roles are formed and perceived as well as not considering more fully how male authors write gender. So the first significant change I made was to make my secondary list an American list from 1830 to 1900. Doing so will let me more fully engage with not only the literature, but also with the questions of how various communities conceive of themselves and of gender within their boundaries.

I also decided that rather than constantly fearing my own ignorance when it came to criticism in the field, I'd try to use my lists and prepping for my quals as an opportunity to become more conversant in that criticism. So my third list has shifted away from being a theoretical list towards being a criticism list. I'll still read some basic texts on community, genre, and gender, but I'll also read major works of criticism on 19th century British and American literature. I think the most important thing this allows is reading the literature in order to discover what's there, rather than bringing a preconceived theoretical approach to the literature. In keeping with that, I'm exploring various options for approaching genre, gender, and community at a slant rather than head on. I'm interested in them as systems of classification--how do we conceive of classes of people? How do we define communities? How do we acknowledge and allow (or ignore and disallow) difference inside classes and communities, which are by definition groups of like things? I've thought about using science as a means of approaching these issues, but I'd love to hear any additional suggestions you may have.

So those are my interests. Briefly. And here they are even more briefly:
  • Victorian literature, with a particular emphasis on the novel and prose non-fiction.
  • The Novel as Genre with an interest in how the novel has shaped conceptions of community and classification.
  • Criticism in those two fields of literary studies.
  • Theories of genre, gender, and community; or how humans make sense of themselves through classification.

Experiencing Grad School

After completing my B.A. in English at Brigham Young University, I happily went off to Charlottesville, VA, where I earned my M.A. in English at the University of Virginia. At the time, my education was more of a pasttime than a pursuit, which left me struggling with what I'd do with myself after graduating. I spent two years working--one in Boston as an assistant in a law office and one in Utah where I was a marketing/PR/creative jill-of-all-trades for my sister's new company. But I found myself hankering after more school and (more importantly) longing to teach, so I went through the arduous application process (not once, but twice) and eventually found myself enrolled in the English PhD program at UC-Irvine. Grad school has been an exercise in frustration and fulfillment, discouragement and discovery. In other words, it's been a bit of a rollercoaster. After taking time off, I've had a hard time getting myself moving again. This blog is part of a larger effort to move.